Hell is a choice

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

The best analogy for Jordan Peterson is C.S. Lewis, Scott Alexander suggests:

Lewis believes that Hell is a choice. On the literal level, it’s a choice not to accept God. But on a more metaphorical level, it’s a choice to avoid facing a difficult reality by ensconcing yourself in narratives of victimhood and pride. You start with some problem — maybe your career is stuck. You could try to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to improve — but that would require an admission of failure and a difficult commitment. You could change companies or change fields until you found a position that better suited your talents — but that would require a difficult leap into the unknown. So instead you complain to yourself about your sucky boss, who is too dull and self-absorbed to realize how much potential you have. You think “I’m too good for this company anyway”. You think “Why would I want to go into a better job, that’s just the rat race, good thing I’m not the sort of scumbag who’s obsessed with financial success.” When your friends and family members try to point out that you’re getting really bitter and sabotaging your own prospects, you dismiss them as tools of the corrupt system. Finally you reach the point where you hate everybody — and also, if someone handed you a promotion on a silver platter, you would knock it aside just to spite them.

…except a thousand times more subtle than this, and reaching into every corner of life, and so omnipresent that avoiding it may be the key life skill. Maybe I’m not good at explaining it; read The Great Divorce (online copy, my review).


C.S. Lewis might have hated Peterson, but we already know he loathed Freud. Yet Peterson does interesting work connecting the Lewisian idea of the person trapped in their victimization and pride narratives to Freud’s idea of the defense mechanism. In both cases, somebody who can’t tolerate reality diverts their emotions into a protective psychic self-defense system; in both cases, the defense system outlives its usefulness and leads to further problems down the line. Noticing the similarity helped me understand both Freud and Lewis better, and helped me push through Freud’s scientific veneer and Lewis’ Christian veneer to find the ordinary everyday concept underneath both. I notice I wrote about this several years ago in my review of The Great Divorce, but I guess I forgot. Peterson reminded me, and it’s worth being reminded of.

The frame story of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is sparse but cute, Scott Alexander explains in his review:

There is regular bus service from Hell to Heaven. The damned souls from Hell take a field trip to Heaven, where they meet their blessed friends and relatives. They have conversations about their past lives and about good and evil. It is revealed that any damned soul who wants to stay in Heaven is free to do so, but in the end most of them choose to get back on the bus to Hell.

There was some theological discussion, but it didn’t seem very central. Lewis pretty much said all the Christian sects were simultaneously right about everything and it was a mystery exactly how.

So the setting was a straw dystopia and the theology was hand-wavey. The book was about morality. And like most of Lewis’ writings about morality, it was really good.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Lewis is not very heterdox on that point. The tradtional, pre-Vat 2, Catholic teaching was that one had to consciously reject God’s grace to get to Hell a la Satan.

    Francis, of course, is a heretic. But trads argue that the Holy Ghost abandonned the Church during Vat 2.

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